Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Sources of Secularism: Globalization

7/28/2007--There are two related meanings of globalization. The most common meaning is an economic one. Since the fall of communism in the 1980’s, a world-wide capitalist economy has been growing. In this one-world, capital is largely free to move around the world. Labor is less free to move, but since production moves so freely, jobs can go to the workers rather than workers having to seek out the jobs. Americans call this process outsourcing and it is an enormous force in the world economy.

The currency of this one-world capitalism is consumption. The economic well-being of everyone depends on consumers everywhere continually buying an increasing mass of products. And these products are becoming the same all over the world.

The other meaning of globalization is more cultural than economic. Globalization also refers to the interpentration of the cultures of the world. Through all sorts of exchanges, not just economic, all the peoples of the world are in closer contact than ever before.

How might globalization lead to secularization? There are two aspects to this. First, there is the content—the ideology—of this globalized culture. It is a secular culture. Second, and more subtle, there is the pressure of relativism that globalization brings.

First, what is this new world culture about? It is basically a consuming and producing culture. So, what people learn from it is materialism. Globalization is not in any sense a spiritual awakening.

Secularization also comes from the general loosening of cultural ties that happens with movement of various kinds. The Indian computer worker who spends time in Seattle, for example, away from home and family, may no longer see the need for worship. Or the associate who is sent by a law firm to Tokyo for an extended period may not bother with church. Although these sorts of movements do not ensure a weakening of religious commitments, they make that more likely than it would otherwise be.

The secularizing effect of the other form of globalization—cultural contact—is quite different. The issue becomes one of religious skepticism based on anthropological relativism. Historically most human beings knew mostly their own kind and certainly did not know that much about the traditions of other and different kinds of people. When we learn that all cultures have their religious traditions, the effect can be dramatic.

Globalization disrupts our religious certitudes by bringing us into contact with different cultural and religious traditions. Philip Kitcher in Living with Darwin describes what often happens next:

"As understanding of the diversity of the world’s religions increases, it’s hard for believers to avoid viewing themselves as participants in one line of religious teaching among many. You profess your faith on the authority of the tradition in which you stand, but you also have to recognize that others, people who believe very different, in compatible things, would defend their beliefs in the same fashion. By what right can you maintain that your tradition is the right one, that its deliverances are privileged?"[1]

This problem also beset Pem in City of God, when he asked in a sermon, “But how do we distinguish our truth from another’s falsity… ?”[2]

The more we know of other religions, the harder it is to believe that the one we grew up in happens to be the ultimately right one. But the matter is even worse than that. For not only do we now know that there are sincere believers in other, and different religions, but we also know that our own tradition, especially if it is Christian, could at various points have gone in different doctrinal directions. The Gospel of Thomas, for example, could have been admitted into the Canon. It is clear that the Old Testament was put together out of different and identifiable sources. In other words, our religions are man-made.

The response from many people to all this knowledge is that all religions are basically the same. But what is that “same” that all religions are supposed to be? For many people, that similarity comes down to something very innocuous, like “be a good person.” Thus is born a dull secularism, which is out of touch with any deeper possibilities of human life. No religious tradition, nor for that matter much truth of any fundamental kind, can be embraced out of such thinking.

[1] Kitcher, at 141.
[2] City of God, at 14.

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